Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Thank goodness I haven't exhibited flu-like symptoms like many of my students have--or claim to have: "Sensei, I am exhibiting flu-like symptoms and am unable to attend class today." Hmmm... sounds like a cut and paste job from an email sent by the dean. Oh well, what can you do? I have yet to exhibit anything–knock on wood–but you never know. So I got my seasonal flu shot and am anxiously waiting for the H1N1 vaccine. Of course, if I catch something, then maybe I can take off and rest for a week or so. I'm sure some of my students would appreciate a reprieve from my weekly quizzes and writing assignments.

Anyway, I got an email from President Obama asking me personally to spread the word about their new website. Yes, I get an email from him often, like everyday, sometimes three times a day. Of course, much of it goes something like, "with your tax deductable support we can..." But seriously, the email comes directly from him...

Anyway, everyone, check out the site for the latest info on H1Ni, and please stay healthy and germ free. And always wash those hands!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Language Tea Time

Anyone wanna join me for some Japanese?

The Sigur Center for Asian Studies Presents:


Chinese Tea Time

When: 4:00 - 5:00 PM

October 22, November 12

Where: The Sigur Center for Asian Studies, 1957 E St, NW
Suite 503, the Chung-Wen Shih Conference Room

Monday, October 12, 2009

Summer Japanese at GW--Tell your friends... well, maybe not yet...

Every summer we want to offer a summer course for Japanese language but for whatever reason, students do not come. I have to believe that there is interest out there, but we can never get enough enrollment. So this year, with a little encouragement from the Dean's office--specifically Assistant Dean Keller--I've cooked up a proposal that I hope will garner interest. Remember, this is a proposal for now. We will see if it flies...

Intended goals of program
Summer courses at most universities—including GW—tend to be individual, unconnected classes offered as a means for students to fulfill GCRs or to graduate on time. The idea of this Taste of Japanese Language and Culture program is to offer an integrated learning experience incorporating language and culture to inspire students about Japan while passing the summer in an educationally productive manner.

Dates of classes & total contact hours
An eight (8) week program from May 17 to July 9 as per GW’s academic calendar 2009-10.

  • Intensive Basic Japanese will meet for three hours, four days a week, Monday through Thursday for a total of 93.3 contact hour (excluding the Final Exam day).
  • Intensive Intermediate Japanese will meet for three hours, four days a week, Monday through Thursday for a total of 93.3 contact hour (excluding the Final Exam day).
  • Japanese Culture through Film will meet three times a week, one meeting will be 2.5 hours for screening and discussion of film, the other two meeting will meet for one hour (a full 60 minutes). Total contact hours total equals 36 hours

Targeted audience
The primary target audience is GW students who wish to accelerate their Japanese language learning schedule. However, by integrating language and culture together, we also hope to attract non-GW students and the public at large.

Draft syllabus & timeline
Both Intensive Language courses can be held from 10 AM in the morning to 1:50 PM with a 10 minute break and a 40 minute joint lunch with students and instructor daily.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sabbatical Report

Brief summary of the original plan

Little new work has been done on the aesthetic principles of Japanese poetry. Many of the current articles and books reiterate the research of Robert Brower and Earl Miner in their forty-nine year old classic, Japanese Court Poetry (Stanford, 1960). A number of aesthetic principles need to be updated, and during the sabbatical, I intended to focus on a search through documents to identify, collect and collate all relevant material, and write initial drafts of my findings which would lead to a series of articles on different poetic and aesthetic principles specifically addressing outdated research.

Summary of sabbatical activities

I began the sabbatical by focusing on collecting further examples of the application of the aesthetic/poetic principle, yūgen (幽玄 lit. mystery and depth), by Fujiwara Shunzei in poetry matches by going through matches he judged starting from the Shigeie Poetry Match of 1166 to the Sengohyakuban Poetry Match of 1201. I have identified thirteen—and I believe all—instances of yūgen in extant documents. Previously, I have determined that this principle—unlike the anachronistic interpretation by many previous scholars who believed that yūgen was applied to “mysterious” content—was applied in reference to poems that manifested an unstable text, poems that had more than one meaning. This instability was based on the poems reference to archaic elements that were somehow sensed but not readily explained. The noted Japanese scholar, Kubota Jun, reached a similar conclusion but makes reference to archaic grammatical patterns. My research, on the other hand, suggests that this is an overly convenient conclusion; analysis of Shunzei’s application of the term does not refer to just any archaic element—would the phrase “thou hast” in a modern English poem render it “mysterious and deep”?—but rather specifically to older texts with which the connection is not obvious.

The absence of an obvious and direct association with other texts is in contradistinction with another poetic technique of the same era known as honkadori. A crucial prescription for this compositional technique was to borrow more than one poetic segment (ku) from a source poem and incorporating it into your own poem. Moreover, the borrowing must be an obvious reference to a previous poem. As the leading poet of the early 13th century, Fujiwara Teika, noted in his poetic treatise, Maigetsushō, “[borrowing] should be done in such a way that it is clear that the older poem has been used.” While all scholars of premodern Japanese literature recognize the distinction between yūgen and honkadori, there seems to be a misconception when analyzing their role in critical method. David Bialock indicates that Teika was “deeply committed to the concept of the text as a stable, fixed entity,” but then indicates that the Shinkokinshū “conceals a vertical depth reaching back or down into the intertextual space of the tradition, an intertextual space which it in fact generates out of its own textual practice.” While I agree that Teika’s approach suggests a commitment to a “stable, fixed entity,” this seems to contradict his idea that the Shinkokinshū—the eighth Imperial Anthology of which Teika was one of the compilers—reached into an “intertextual space” which “generates out of its own textual practice.” His comment suggests that honkadori—with its clear relationship with older poems—was a form of intertextuality. This is, in my opinion, far from correct. Intertextuality as defined by Julia Kristeva or Roland Barthes promotes quite the opposite: the text is an unstable, unfixed entity.

Still, Bialock’s assertion is understandable to the degree that honkadori is intertextual in nature. A poem that incorporates this technique can technically have more than one meaning—the straight-forward meaning suggested by the original text itself and the alternative meanings rendered when the source poem is also taken into consideration. However, the fact that the prescription for honkadori requires that it be “clear that the older poem has been used” strips away any pretense to the instability of the text. This is not intertextuality. It is contextuality.

Departure from original plan

In the contemporary field of Japanese literature, the feud between traditionalists and post-structuralists is alive and quite palpable. By training and personal philosophy, I am inclined to the post-structuralist notion of the instability of the text. However, I also understand the necessity to ground the text in some sort of “reality”, a context within which a text derives meaning from the circumstances of composition, the background of the writer, or the era in which it was written. What this boils down to is that I believe that a critical and ultimately successful reading of a text is based on an understanding and acceptance of both of these two dialectically opposed views, and I find fascinating the idea that Heian poets seemed to reflect this stance by accepting and applying both the technique of honkadori and the principle of yūgen.

As a result of this new insight, my initial goal of identifying, collecting and collating the various aesthetic principles of Late Heian poetry was temporarily put on hold. While these are important goals to which I will return, I found it more important—and for me, more exciting—to pursue this dichotomy between honkadori and yūgen, contextuality and intertextuality, within the framework of Late Heian court poetry. As a result, much of the sabbatical was spent searching for further examples of honkadori, analyzing premodern interpretations of its application, and the reading of secondary sources concerning yūgen, honkadori, text and intertextuality, all of which led me to the above conclusion.

Results and Contributions

This deviation from my sabbatical proposal, however, is not so much a departure from the original plan but an augmentation and expansion of my ultimate goals: an understanding of post-modern thinking in premodern Japan. It is of great interest to me to analyze 1000-year old court texts that seem to reflect the critical methodology that is so much a part of the landscape of 21st century academia. The results of my work, I am currently assembling into a rough draft and hope to submit for journal publication by the end of the year. Further research and eventual publication of these findings would open the eyes of colleagues, contribute to my field of premodern Japanese literature, and hopefully to the field of humanities in general.

Other activities

Beyond my research endeavors during the sabbatical, I remained active in and committed to the business of the University, the Columbian College of Arts and Science, the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, and to the Japanese Language and Literature Program and its students in the following ways:

  • Served on Departmental Search Committee for Chinese Language, Teaching Instructor position, East Asian Languages and Literatures. 2008-9.
  • Participated in Sophomore Major Fair, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, February 2009.
  • Participated in CCAS Celebration, Bachelors Degree greeter, May 16, 2009.
  • Participated in University Commencement, May 17, 2009.
  • Maintained a presence in the Japanese Program by advising students online and in person, writing letters of recommendations, etc.
  • Served as Haiku judge for the Mid Atlantic Association of Teaching Japanese (MAATJ)—an organization of Japanese teachers in the DC, MD, and VA area. Judged, ranked and commented on over 70 haiku submissions by students of Japanese language from elementary to high school.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Semester, New Academic Year 2009-10

The sabbatical is over. *sigh* I did quite a bit of research, although I have yet to organize it into a coherent paper. I'll be working on that over the next few months. Aah, context and intertext, honkadori and yuugen. Sometimes I wonder if it is stimulating the gray matter...or frying it.

Anyway, I hope that majors come see ASAP once the semeser starts so we can go over your schedule of classes to ensure timely progress. I hate it when students find themselves in a not-enough-credit-units/requirements-to-graduate debacle. It often turns into an ugly situation. So even if you're a sophomore or junior, be sure to drop by, okay? I'll be in from Day One (that's August 31 for those who don't know), Monday through Thursday. And as my regular Riceballs already know, you're more likely to catch me in the PM than the AM.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Dog Ate It

God love the Japanese. They come up with the craziest inventions, such as the Head Stabilizer for those who fall asleep on the train, or the Cuddle Pillow for the lonely among us. But I read that the toy company, Takara Tomy, is reintroducing its dog interpreter, the Bowlingual. This contraption claims to analyze a dog's bark and interpret its emotional state. This is rather ridiculous, as it would seem to me that most people can read the emotions of man's best friend relatively easily. A wagging tail is a happy dog, flattened ears is fear/aggression, a whimper suggests pain.

But then, you never know. I'm wondering if this electronic translator can interpret an elevated level of stress, such as in a lie detector. As an instructor, I come across my share of students who forget to do their home assignments. Indeed, I had one student who came home from Thanksgiving break swearing that the paper he wrote on his parents' computer--suggesting he didn't have the file to print--was destroyed by his dog. He even presented me with the shredded remnants of the paper he somehow saved from the jaws of his pet.

This old and tired excuse--my dog ate it--is seemingly effective because the only other witness to the crime is the perpetrator who cannot communicate the truth. But if this Bowlingual could somehow interpret Spot's emotions when confronted with the now unreadable shreds of evidence, well, Takara Tomy might have something that I might buy.

FYI: This post has been slightly fictionalized. :-)

Saturday, March 07, 2009


I had heard of Twitter quite a while ago when the people at RBJ began tweeting--I think that's the verb--with each other. I resisted. I swore that I have enough sites to my name at places like Blogger, Hotmail, Aim, LiveJournal, Flickr, MySpace, etc. I figure that it was enough. I even have a Jaiku account which is I think similar to Twitter, so I thought, "Why bother?"

Well, it seems that everyone on TV is talking about Twitter. It's like the Facebook for 2009. So what did I do the other day? I registered.

Unfortunately.... Someone already is using my screen name. I mean seriously, my name is so unique--riceball man--why would anyone want to use it? Worse, I don't think this person is using it because s/he has no updates, no followings, no followers. What's up with that?

Anyway, I don't know when I'll be tweeting, but I've come to the conclusion this is a good way to maintain a presence/relationship with former students, provided they have a Tweeter account. So if you do and you want to keep in touch, follow me and I'll follow you back.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's (non) State of the Union Address

It is customary for a president to be seated for a year before he gives a State of the Union Address, so Obama's speech last night was not really a State of the Union. Even though the talking heads on TV treated it as such--my poison is MSNBC--it wasn't. It was more like the Hopeful State of the Union, the way Obama envisions how his stimulus package will work out when implemented. There were a few promising moments, but he grabbed my attention when he got to education. This is the first time I can remember any president speak so publicly about the necessity of HIGHER education--education beyond high school--and how it will hold a place of prominence in his policy.

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.

But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

As a college professor, I'm not embarrassed to admit that I got misty eyed when I heard this.

Friday, February 13, 2009


J-Major Curry Party 2008

The Japanese dish, curry rice, is a common dish. Curry is most readily identified with India, but Japanese curry--if memory serves correctly--did not come from India but from England. The British colonized India, imported curry, altered the flavor and style to match there palette and made it their own dish. The Japanese in the Meiji period, importing many things from the West including cuisine, adopted curry from the British and adapted it to their own taste buds. Indeed, the popular dish "rice curry" ライスカレー--not to be mistaken with curry rice--is closer in to the British rendition of curry than with the original Indian curry, which seems to have dozens if not hundreds of different recipes.

The basic Japanese curry is a dark thick sauce made from a roux and includes onions, carrots, potatoes and meat, either beef, chicken or pork and is generally served with rice--karee nanban is curry served with udon and karee pan is a donut (usually) filled with curry. It is easy to make and even easier to eat--i.e it takes very little chewing to swallow, which is not exactly good for your digestive system.

This distinction between "curry rice" and "rice curry" is more than semantic in Japan. Curry rice カレーライス is served on top of the rice and is the typical serving style in homes and Japanese diners. But for the more sophisticate who eat curry in western-styled diners, hotels and high end department stores, the curry is called rice curry ライスカレー: served in a gravy boat separate from the rice. To me, the taste is virtually same but but the presentation requires a re-ordering of the name.

Further, it is (not so) important to note that curry in Japan is never served with gohan, the Japanese word for "rice," but rather with raisu, the Japanese pronunciation of "rice." This has nothing to do with the actual rice. Curry rice and rice curry are both served with cooked Japanese short grain rice, not the long grain rice of Thailand (Jasmine) or India (Basmati). So what is the difference? Beats me. No Japanese has ever convincingly explained this to me except to say that curry rice is considered a "Western" dish (go figure) and so it is natural to use the Western word to represent the rice as well. Of course, when I ask why they call a "cutlette bowl" katsudon instead of katsu-booru, I am met with consternation. This also works with curry noodles: Why karee nanbam カレー南蛮 (curry of the southern barbarians) instead of karee nuudoru. Yes, I can be such a provocateur.

Anyway, why am I talking about curry? Well, every year I have a curry party for Japanese majors--no I take that back. There was one year when I didn't. I was too busy--which is my usual explantion, and I'll leave it at that. This year, I'm on sabbatical and am unsure if I should have another one. These parties began when the school administration offered a modest sum of money to promote student-teacher interaction. This modest largesse dissipated in a couple of years, but the "demand" for the party never waned so I continued it--except for that one year--at my own expense. A couple of years ago, Hamano sensei began to provide funds to cover some of the cost which was very helpful. But I wonder if there is any demand or need for such a party when I am on sabbatical.

If you think we should hold our J-major Curry Party, leave me a comment. Since there are more than 20 majors, I hope to see a goodly number of responses. That would surely convince me.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Just want to note that one of our Japanese majors (2008) was recently accepted into the PhD program at UC Berkeley and Yale University for Japanese Literature. Marjorie Burge did excellent research at a level that rivals what I did as a graduate student in premodern Japanese Literature when she studied with me last year. She had spent a semester in Korea and a year in Japan and was researching classical documents that she believed provides linguistic clues to the close relationship between Paekche (Korea) and Japan. She maintained high standards throughout her academic career here that got her recognized by GW for Outstanding Achievement. She was nominated as a Distinguished Scholar (ESIA) and recognized as a member of what Vice President Lehman referred to as the "2% Club", the top two percent at GW. [photo]

Congratulations Margi.

One Day Fireman

Mere words cannot express how moved I am at how our J majors grow. Good job, Jacob Heller (2007), even if is was only for a day. :-P

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Speaking Japanese

When speaking Japanese, non-native speakers need to remember to be polite.

Most languages have at last two levels of speech. In general, they are formal and informal. In the US, this is especially true in business. You call people Mister, unless told otherwise. You speak and act politely, unless you become very familiar with your superior. Do you slap you boss's back and tell him "Good job, dude"?

In Japanese, the line is even more pronounced. Unfortunately for most Japanese learners, a Japanese speaker will not correct a non-native speaker when they speak informally. Many Americans will come back from Japan thinking their Japanese is all that. I certainly have many students like that as well. And for the most part, their confidence is well founded. Their Japanese is relatively fluent and unobstructed by the fear of using the wrong word.

However, if they are too informal with me, I will always correct them. I don't mean to be a hard-ass, but someone needs to correct them because if and when they return to Japan for work or graduate study, they cannot talk informally when talking to a business colleague or professor. They have to learn to turn the formality switch on and off in any given situation. And the level familiarity rarely has anything to do with it. I worked at a Research Center for two years in Japan and became very familiar with my bucho (division chief). We often drank together, and he is the one who dubbed me the "American who speaks English". But one night while drinking, I spoke to him a bit too familiarly. Now, in Japan, drinking often excuses an error in judgment, and most will laugh it off the next day. But my error in being too familiar with my bucho put me in his doghouse for two weeks. He literally did not speak to me during that time, relaying messages to me through others.

The bottom line is--been there, done that. So I tell my students to speak to me formally whenever they decide to speak to me in Japanese. If they think I am a hardcase, then so be it. I take it upon myself to be their practice partner, their opportunity to learn how to turn that formality switch on and off.